Review of Environment, Energy and Economics - Re3 Towards a Sustainable University – The Ca’ Foscari Experience


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Towards a Sustainable University – The Ca’ Foscari Experience
by Chiara Mio
Economics - Book Reviews

Education of present and future generations is the mission of Universities: and sustainability is a core issue to be tackled in this perspective. This is the key message of the book "Towards a Sustainable University" , which aims at analysing the role of universities in the creation and spread of knowledge, and the educational and behavioral models of all the stakeholders, supporting the pursuit of this new paradigm. The path towards sustainability needs first of all a deep cultural change, starting with the education of responsible citizens: this is an essential step, without which it would not be possible to overcome the weaknesses of the present development model.

Keywords: Education, Sustainable University

JEL: I20, I23, Q01, Q56, Q59, Y30

Suggested Citation: Mio, Chiara, Towards a Sustainable University – The Ca’ Foscari Experience  (December 5, 2013), FEEM (Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei), Review of Environment, Energy and Economics (Re3)

Towards a Sustainable University – The Ca’ Foscari Experience by Chiara Mio, (2013), Palgrave Pivot

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The book is structured in three chapters, starting with the explanation of basic concepts about sustainability, the critical environmental and social issues and the commitment of countries and institutions. It then addresses the specific application of this paradigm in Universities, analyzing the characteristics of different approaches, related tools and initiatives (such as carbon management process, green Universities and sustainability rankings). In conclusion, it presents the case of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, its path towards sustainability, the actions taken, the tools adopted and the projects launched.

In particular, the first chapter starts off with the illustration of critical environmental and social themes characterizing the current situation, resulting from a development model that has exploited the environment and the natural resources, beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. 

This model is focused on the principle of growth, which has led to over-production and over-consumption, whose extremely negative effects are today certainly evident.

Source: Ca' Foscari University of Venice online, Sustainable Ca' Foscari spot

Climate change is one of the most critical effects of the present unsustainable production and consumption model. Among the causes of this, natural ones (such as solar radiation, volcanic eruptions and natural fluctuations) are not the most relevant. Human activities, generating a higher concentration of the greenhouse gases (GHG), have played the main role in increasing global warming, the most important consequence of climate change, in addition to the rising of sea levels and the more frequent and intensive events such as floods and hurricanes.

The high growth rates characterizing the present development model have increased the difference between people living in conditions of ‘wealth’ and those living in conditions of ‘poverty’, which are progressively expanding. We are living in a world where over 14% of the population accounts for almost 80% of the world consumption and this phenomenon will grow unless a new, more sustainable development model is adopted.

For this reason, many countries, institutions and other organizations, since the 1970s, have signed declarations and agreements in which commitments and goals towards sustainability were formalized, in order to generate that cultural change essential to switch to the new paradigm.

Since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, many initiatives have followed one another. Among these, many declarations and agreements concern commitments of Universities: the Magna Charta Universitatum, signed in 1988 in Bologna (Italy) by the representatives of the major European countries, the Talloires Declaration of 1990, that makes the start of the University ‘sustainability movement' official, the Halifax Declaration of 1991, in which sustainability was considered in its tridimensional meaning (social, environmental and economic). The essential role of Universities in fostering sustainable development was outlined even in Agenda 21, one of the main outputs of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Afterwards, among the initiatives carried out, the Kyoto Declaration, promoted by the International Association of Universities (1993), one of the most important documents on the issue of sustainability for Universities, along with the World Declaration on Higher Education for the 21st Century: Vision and Action, endorsed in 1998 by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and UNESCO. In 2002, in the course of the 57th General Assembly of the United Nations, the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) was proclaimed, from January 2005 to December 2014. Even in ‘The Future We Want’, the Outcome Document of the Earth Summit ‘Rio+20’, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 the centrality of educational institutions in guiding towards sustainability was strengthened. The adoption of a comprehensive and long term approach by this institution is a necessary condition for the effectiveness in pursuing the goals of sustainability: this is the theme dealt with in the second chapter of the book.

In the second chapter, principles and fundamentals underlying the implementation of the sustainability paradigm are analyzed.

The perspective of sustainability is essential for Universities, intrinsic to their mission: these institutions generate directly and indirectly environmental, social and economic impacts.

First of all, Universities play a fundamental role in educating future generations, contributing to the spreading of sustainability principles, so that sustainable behaviors are adopted by responsible citizens. From this perspective, the action of Universities must be widespread, first of all considering their institutional pillars: from teaching, integrating sustainability in degree and professional master programs, to research, fostering projects aiming at the development of knowledge, expertise, technologies and tools oriented to and focused on sustainability. Universities have to manage the deep connection between teaching and research, through a synergic planning and implementation process, in order to integrate consistently sustainability contents.

In addition to actions and initiatives concerning core activities (teaching and research), sustainability has to impregnate all the relations with all the stakeholder categories, from the community, to suppliers, to other institutions and so on. For Universities stakeholder engagement is an essential step to create and strengthen awareness about this issue, thus contributing to a more sustainable future, encouraging people to adopt more responsible lifestyles. This is not easy, because every day each stakeholder is exposed to many solicitations, information and messages not always consistent with the principles of sustainability. The University has the task of educating and making the stakeholders aware of the risks connected with the present development model, the importance of implementing a new one, inspired by sustainability. For example, the relationships with the students, the first recipients of University action, have to be defined and managed with this purpose, aiming at a more proactive role of this stakeholder. Actions aimed at a greater involvement of the students in the learning experience, in projects or other initiatives allowing them to apply what they have learned, can increase their awareness about social and environmental issues, the attention paid to the effects of their behavior with respect to the local community and to the ecosystem, shaping their own approach towards sustainability.

Besides, the activities realized by Universities consume natural resources (materials, energy, water and so on) and generate emissions and waste. For this, they have to implement measurement systems to control these impacts, reporting to stakeholders the results of the action taken to reduce negative effects.

The actions taken by Universities to improve the impacts directly and indirectly generated and the spreading of the principles of sustainability through an effective stakeholder engagement are essential steps towards a better quality of life for present and future generations, in a more sustainable environment. From this point of view, Universities may be considered a sort of ‘community’, their actions, initiatives, can convey to all the stakeholders the features of sustainable lifestyles.

Among the several initiatives carried out to support the adoption of sustainability in Universities, besides those mentioned above, such as the ten points of the Talloires Declaration and the objectives and steps highlighted during the World Summit of 2002, an important step is represented by the Principles for Responsible Management Education. The principal output of this initiative is a framework, made up of six principles, which have to be gradually and systematically implemented.

These six principles deal with all the aspects through which sustainability may be fulfilled in Universities, from the development of “the capabilities of students to be future generators of sustainable value” (Purpose), to the incorporation “into our academic activities and curricula of the values of global social responsibility” (Value), to the creation of “educational frameworks, materials, processes and environments” (Method), to the engagement “in conceptual and empirical research” (Research), to the interaction “with managers of business Corporations” (Partnership), to the facilitation and support of “dialogue and debate among educators, students, business, government, consumers, media, civil society, organizations and other interested groups and stakeholders” (Dialogue).

Among the different approaches adopted by Universities in the perspective of sustainability, two extreme configurations may be defined: the “Technical-technological approach” and the “Strategic-organizational approach”. The first is made up of single projects and initiatives, without a unitary and widespread perspective. The second approach, representing the framework of the book, may be considered as an objective model, never fully achieved. It requires the above mentioned unitary and widespread perspective lacking in the first approach, whose implementation leads to a consistent shaping in terms of sustainability of all the elements: mission, value system, objectives and strategic pillars, governance system and the process of stakeholder engagement, organizational structure, operational mechanisms, in particular the performance measurement system and its related key performance indicators (with particular reference to outcome indicators), the evaluation system, the reporting system and the different tools used to communicate the commitment towards sustainability (such as social, environmental, sustainability and integrated reports).

Moreover, the second chapter illustrates two themes concerning in particular the environmental dimension: the carbon management process and related measurement of the carbon footprint, and the so-called “green Universities”, along with sustainability networks and rankings.

As pointed out above, climate change is one of the most critical environmental issues, and greenhouse gas emissions one of the main causes of it. The reduction of these emissions represents an obligation ratified by international and European Community regulations. Therefore, institutions, and among them, Universities, have implemented policies and strategies to achieve carbon reduction objectives, in order to fulfill the provisions.

Carbon management refers to the policies, procedures and systems dedicated to the management of issues related to greenhouse gas emissions, process so-called because the indicator chosen for the definition of the objectives and for the monitoring of the results over time is carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the gases mainly responsible for the greenhouse effect.

In this process, one of the first and essential steps is the calculation of the carbon footprint, that is, for Universities, the greenhouse gas emissions related to the whole life cycle of its services (including energy consumption, goods purchased, staff travel, the mobility of students and employees, and waste management).

Carbon management allows achieving environmental, educational and economic advantages, but only if this process is implemented gradually in the University, through an integrated approach within the organization. This is the approach adopted by Ca’ Foscari University, the Venetian academic institution whose experience about sustainability is illustrated in the final chapter of the book.

The first official step in Ca’ Foscari’s path towards sustainability is the approval of the first Sustainability Commitments Charter in 2010, a document, revised every year since then, that summarizes the sustainability objectives of the Venetian University in the long, medium and short term, its engagement in the environmental, social and economic issues considered strategically important (ten areas of intervention identified), such as minimizing its impact on the ecosystem, improving the social cohesion and supporting equal opportunities for all the stakeholders, along with the cultural and economic growth of the territory.

The Sustainability Commitments Charter is just one of the key elements through which the wide strategic-organizational approach adopted by Ca’ Foscari materializes.

The Venetian University has revised its governance system, in particular through the insertion of principles and objectives related to sustainability in the Statute and in the Strategic Plan, the appointment of specific organizational figures and the Ethical Code. Ca’ Foscari has mapped its stakeholder groups, in order to realize an engagement process with them, key step towards a “broadened” governance.

Moreover, Ca’ Foscari has introduced a wide set of sustainability tools, projects and initiatives, such as the Carbon Management Project, the Sustainability Report, sustainability teaching and research, the selective collection of waste and the commitment to integrate sustainability into University rankings.

With particular reference to the Carbon Management Project, in 2010 Ca’ Foscari signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of the Environment and of the Protection of the Territory and of the Sea (MATTM), aimed at the realization of a pilot project. Two were the outputs of this project: the planning and implementation of a model for the calculation of the carbon footprint and the publication of Guidelines for Carbon Management in Italian Universities. In 2011 Ca’ Foscari confirmed its commitment to this issue through a new agreement with the MATTM (called ‘Addendum’), to the purpose of achieving the ISO 14064–3:2006 certification for the proposed methodology for the calculation of the carbon footprint, along with implementing initiatives aimed at spreading the principles of responsible life-styles, reducing the negative impact on the environment caused by careless behaviors. It is worth mentioning also the “carbon footprint calculator”, a tool available to all students and employees of Ca’ Foscari, able to calculate the carbon footprint of each member and to provide suggestions to improve (reduce) the footprint changing everyday behaviours. Moreover, all the students could enrich their own curricula adding a course named “Sustainability Competences”: young people are sensitive to this issue, in fact, more than 1,000 students chose to insert this option in their curricula. The efforts of Ca’ Foscari are stimulating evident changes: in fact Ca’ Foscari gained during 2013 the 90th place in the Greenmetric ranking, the most important world ranking of green universities.

The experience of Ca’ Foscari proves that the path towards sustainability is never accomplished, it requires a continuous commitment and only a strategic-organizational approach may lead to the achievement of increasingly better performances, both for the institution and for the present and future generations of stakeholders.









Chiara Mio, Professor of Sustainability, Ca' Foscari University of Venice